Raising kids has never been easy, and especially now. Such is the perennial battle cry of parents in every generation. Yet in the age of screens and social media, parents no longer rule the roost in the old ways; their influence is increasingly splintered.

Enter the ever-vigilant Portland native Heidi Julavits, acclaimed novelist and author of the strangely wondrous “Directions to Myself: A Memoir of Four Years.” The years in question track the period of her son’s soon-vanishing childhood, ages 6 through 9. A pivotal stage for a young boy and, as it turns out, for his mother, too. Her memoir celebrates and laments the vagaries of childhood and motherhood, in equal measure.

Julavits is well-versed in the art of teaching – she’s a professor of writing at Columbia – and her story-telling skills are in high demand among her kids and their friends. She’s bent on telling stories that force her son to think through problems, providing tools for his survival. Many of those stories actually take place on the water, in a dinghy, reenactments of childhood lessons (“Red right return”) that the author knows by heart. That fog is often the obstacle at hand is a fitting metaphor for the amorphous threats her son may eventually face.

The book moves between New York City and Maine – from the elite academic realm of Columbia, to the family’s summer vacations on the coast of Maine. The book also toggles between the standard recreational fare of a young boy – zombie films, video games, children’s books – and the narration of a broody parent who inserts grown-up conundrums into the mix. So a sleepover at the author’s house begins with all the posing and make-believe that five little boys can conjure, before it shifts.

“Their conversation is clumsy and ill-fitting, like their mouths are wearing clown shoes,” Julavits says. “They’ve seen older boys do this in TV shows, I’m guessing, but they can’t generate much relevant content about crushes they don’t have and sex they don’t want with a gender they might not prefer. Still, they try.”

When the author’s son (who goes unnamed) asks for a scary story, Julavits complies with a sobering slice of real life: She points to a dorm room across the street, the scene of the crime, where members of the college wrestling team had years earlier been expelled for trash talking. The wrestlers had texted their hateful banter back and forth, then the school newspaper obtained screen shots of the offending texts. While the sleepover gang heard a true-life horror tale, Julavits made her point: Actions have consequences.


Throughout the book, the modern world spills over the edges of daily life, as the author’s son shows up with one epiphany after another. Hiking with his mom one day, he announces that he and a new boy at camp are LBGFFs – “Little Bit Gay Friends Forever.” Julavits deadpans her uncertainty as to whether that acronym is homophobic, or the opposite, or perhaps some hybrid thereof. Another time, he arrives home from a friend’s house, having heard the word “sluts.” Concerned, Julavits mentions this to her husband, author Ben Marcus, and a discussion ensues. For Julavits, the idea isn’t so much avoiding the intrusion of sexuality or adult themes into her son’s world, but creating a framework to address them.

“Directions to Myself” offers latter-day truths, set against a backdrop of navigational touchstones. Like the nautical wisdom that infuses the book, the effect is, by turns, provocative and disarming. Julavits may be losing her son to the wider world, but not without a fight.

“For him, I am no longer his sole point of orientation and will never be again. He will not always be mine. This is the most disorienting,” she says. “My childhood, and (his) are both behind me, visible only from a great height, and impossible to touch. I’ve been grieving this moment for years in advance, reduced myself, at times, to head-holding, breathless despair.”

“Directions to Myself” is both elegy and playbook – witty and ingenious, wistful and smart. Readers will appreciate the author’s dilemma as a mother who is, almost by definition, on the losing end of the stick. Her loss, however, has been stunningly transformed into our gain.

Joan Silverman writes op-eds, essays and book reviews. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including The Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune and Houston Chronicle. She is the author of “Someday This Will Fit,” a collection of linked essays.

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